As defined by the Mayo Clinic, an allergy is “when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance...or a food that doesn't cause a reaction in most people.” You can be allergic to almost anything, from common irritants like dust and pollen to more unique triggers like pet dander or specific foods like peanuts. It’s even possible (though very rare) to be allergic to things like sunlight or water.
An allergic reaction is your immune system’s response to your trigger or allergen. Your body has produced antibodies that recognize the harmless material as a threat, and, when these antibodies detect the allergen, they trigger a response similar to an immune response to an illness or infection.
Usually, these reactions cause fairly mild symptoms, including:
An itching feeling in the eyes, nose, and/or throat
Watery eyes and a running nose
Coughing or shortness of breath
Sometimes, though, the immune response is significantly stronger and might trigger more severe symptoms like rashes and hives, swelling, or, in the most severe cases, anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to an allergen in which the body reacts violently and immediately to its presence. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
A rapid drop in blood pressure and a weak, rapid pulse
Severe shortness of breath, or the inability to breathe at all
Severe skin swelling and/or rash
Lightheadedness, which can lead to a loss of consciousness
Nausea and vomiting
These symptoms can happen in a matter of minutes and result in full respiratory or cardiac arrest if not treated as quickly as possible.
Treating Anaphylactic Shock
As an immediate treatment for anaphylaxis, a dose of epinephrine can be administered to the patient to try and stop the reaction in its tracks. This will constrict the blood vessels to improve pulse rate, stimulate the heart to keep it beating, and relax the smooth muscles in the lungs to improve breathing and oxygen absorption into the blood.
This dose is usually done via an automatic injector pen, the most well-known brand of which is the Epi-Pen. These pens are relatively easy to carry and use, and generally come with instructions so that anyone can administer them in an emergency situation.
How to Use an Epi-Pen
Epi-Pen details a simple, effective, three-step process to using their automatic injector pens.
If the pen is in its carrying case, remove it. Hold it firmly in one fist with the orange safety tip pointing downward. This is where the needle is stored. With your other hand, remove the blue safety tab. This should come away with a straight upward movement, and shouldn’t be twisted or bent.
Line up the orange tip with the outer thigh, holding the pen perpendicular to it. Then pull back and swing firmly until the injector clicks to indicate that the injection has started. Hold it in place for three full seconds (counting slowly out loud if possible helps measure the timing) to allow the medicine to be fully administered. After three seconds, remove the injector and massage the injection site for ten seconds to get the adrenaline moving in the system.
While a shot of epinephrine is the best first step in responding to an anaphylactic emergency, it is only that: the first step. Immediately after administering the Epi-Pen, seek medical assistance by calling 9-1-1 or heading directly to the nearest emergency room if possible.